Trauma and Compassionate Witnessing in A Private War

Conference: The Asian Conference on Media, Communication & Film (MediAsia2022)
Title: Trauma and Compassionate Witnessing in A Private War
Stream: Media and Education: Training Journalists
Presentation Type: Oral Presentation
Bianca Briciu, Saint Paul University, Canada


This presentation analyzes the interplay between compassion and trauma in war correspondent Marie Colvin’s biopic, A Private War (Michael Heineman, 2018). Focusing on the self-reflexive representation of affective witnessing in the film, I will discuss the ethical aspects of compassion in war reporting and the politics of trauma with its dangerous impact on the life of the protagonist, who was eventually killed in Syria in 2012. Affective witnessing implies an ethical position of care and responsibility for the victims of war, which contributes to impactful war reporting. At the same time, affective witnessing creates vicarious trauma, with its maladaptive effects on the psyche of journalists, which raises questions about trauma-informed practice. The film represents narratively and visually both sides of affective witnessing: the compassion Marie Colvin, famous war correspondent at Sunday Times has for war victims and the traumatic impact of being in the presence of death and suffering that leads to her mental breakdown and the deadly fascination with danger. Marie successfully moved her audience through her courageous presence in dangerous war zones and through a position of compassionate witnessing of the direct, horrific impact of war on people. However, in her attempt to enter these dangerous spaces, the protagonist becomes traumatized herself, being haunted by nightmares, hallucinations, depression, and dissociation. The presentation discusses A Private War’s representation of compassionate witnessing as the ethical act of shared humanity and responsibility that carries the danger of trauma, highlighting the importance of trauma informed journalism.

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